HE SANG well. His vocalisation was arguably the best in his era. His lyrics were out of the world. He was outstanding in rhythms. By every standard, he was a poster boy of Nigerian, nay African music of the 1980s and 1990s – handsome, affable and brilliant. Ladies also hubbled towards him and his rich, bold dreadlocks.
Majekodunmi Fasheke, best known by his stage name, ‘Majek Fashek’ (March 1963 – June 2020), a reggae music singer and performer was the star among stars of his era. He was so good that nobody doubted his fitness to fill into the mighty shoes of the likes of Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley), Peter Mcintosh (Peter Tosh), Jimmy Cliff and others who led the world of pop music into deep fanatical fervor for reggae and to some extent, Rastafarianism.
Even before his groundbreaking 1988 hit album, ‘Prisoner of Conscience,’ which contained the evergreen number, ‘Send Down the Rain’ Majek Fashek was already destined for limelight and legendary status given his outstanding talents and steep in his art.
The singer, songwriter, guitarist and occasional film actor who rose from a choir in a commune Aladura church in Benin City, Edo State where he encountered and studied how to play the trumpet and guitar and compose rhythmic songs for congregational worship sessions rose to become a local star in the city where he made regular appearance in a weekly television program during the early 1980s. In the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Benin City musical variety staple, ‘Music Panaroma’, Majek Fashek (then known by the stagename, Rajesh Kanal ) was a toast of the audience with the way he sang, performed and drew the live audience to himself. He garnered a lot of local following in the city and Edo, his mother’s home state. Alongwith McRoy Gregg and Black Rice, they formed a group named Jastix, the rave band of the era in the town, state and environ which also performed in the Music Panorama – the television program that also served as launchpad for such 1980s – 1990s reggae stars as the Mandators (Victor and Peggy Esiet), Evi Edna Ogoli among others.
As Jaztix later disbanded and he evolved into a bigger stature, he launched out of the art-friendly Benin City and into the Nigerian music mainstream in 1988 and began his solo recording and performing career. He moved to Onitsha, Anambra State and got signed-on by the then leading music recording company, Tabansi. Under Tabansi Records label, he became Nigeria’s top reggae artiste from his debut.
His 1988 debut release, ‘Prisoner of Conscience’, from which ‘Send Down the Rain’(Nigeria’s most popular song of two years on the row and brought him six Performing Musicians and Employees Association of Nigeria, PMAN awards which included, ‘Album of the Year’, ‘Song of the Year’ and ‘Reggae Artiste of the Year’) instantly pushed him to frontrow with local and international music aficionados paying keen attention. After the debut, Fashek recorded two other big hit albums, ‘ I & I Experience’(1989) and ‘So Long, Too Long’ (1991, recording) and got a North American tour invitation under the Tabansi label.
From Tabansi Records, he moved on to very remarkable global music labels. He was signed to CBS Nigeria which released ‘So Long, Too Long’. Later, he joined the reputable Interscope Records label, where, in 1992, he released the album ‘Spirit of Love.’ The label would later drop him in 1994, at the early stage of his health challenges.
Same year, during a tour of the United States of America, he appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in which he performed the song “So Long, Too Long” for the program’s global television audience.
In 1994, Flame Tree released ‘The Best of Majek Fashek’. Mango, a division of Island Records that is more known, worldwide for marketing reggae music and brands, enlisted him. In his first album for Mango he had a remix of Bob Marley’s hit number, ‘Redemption Song’. Majek’s version of Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ was so rich and peculiarly rhythmic, replete with chants and engaging drumbeat bridges that it raised many eyebrows in the music world. But by hindsight, his mastery of the number as well as other Bob Marley’s works should be understandable given his adoration of the Jamaican reggae legends. Majek who calls his brand of reggae, kpangolo identified the late Jamaican reggae legend, Bob Marley as his musical influence along with the deceased American guitar-trotting jazz act Jimi Hendrix, and late Nigerian Afrobeat king, Fela Kuti.
Among other albums he made under various labels are ‘Rainmaker’ for Tuff Gong (1997) and ‘Little Patience’ for Coral (2004).
Majek’s musical imprint of high pitch vocalisation, pulsating drumbeat and words that make the receiver listen attentively as he dances always manifested in his works. There are deep philosophical assertions in his lyrics and mystique in them too. For example when ‘Send Down the Rain’ reigned there were generally-held notions that most times, when the number drops, the rains come.
Like Marley, he also had a way of creating engaging songs out of minute situations and objects. His number, ‘My Guitar’, is a rattling tribute to this favourite musical instrument. It blended reggae and rock genres of music healthily, not a la ragga and techno-reggae effusions. For his former wife, Rita Fashek, mother of four of his children (from whom he got a divorce) he did the number, ‘Without You.’
The punch of his lyrics is like meditating on an elevated poet’s lines. He comes across as one who sits with the muse any time he scripts his songs. Every song he sang beckoned the thinker as much as it tickled dancing legs. Sometimes Majek sounded surreal , dreamy and somewhat queer. In one number he invited “Holy Spirit” to come and “take over the world.” He died a day after Pentecost. In another, ‘Promised Land,’ he asked the listener in scary way that suggest that he is ‘transported’out of common clime: “hope you are ready?”
He sang further: “We are going to the Promised Land / The promised land, is not America / Is not Africa /… Promised Land is a state of mind.”
Majek sang of a place where there will be “No more sorrow…no more weeping….no more crying…no more pain”. Possibly, that is where he is now.
Beyond his mystique and joggling imagery Majek was a politically conscious artiste. But unlike most artistes of his generation who were overtly African, European, Asian, American or sought to be of whatever narrow race or colour he craved to be globally relevant. In ‘So Long…’ he sang thusly: “Arise from your sleep, Africa / Arise from your sleep America / There’s work to be done, Africa / There’s work to be done, America /… We’ve been sitting down for so long….”
Without doubt, Majek’s art is deep with many tropes. His other musical works comprise ‘Weep Not Children’, ‘Rasta Ganstar’ among others.
As a screen actor, Majek played a supporting role in the 2000 Nollywood movie ‘Mark of the Beast’ and also starred in a commercial for non-alcoholic beverage Diamant. Ironically, in 2015, it was disclosed that he was bankrupt and battling a hard drug addiction for which he was enrolled into a rehabilitation centre in federal capital territory, (FCT), Abuja.
The drawback did not stop his music making and performances. He contributed a number for the December 2016 International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Human Rights Watch fund-raiser ‘We Are Not Afraid’ musical film that featured 200 celebrities. Same year, he performed in a sell-out comedy show in Lagos.
Indeed, a rare gem went beyond, in Majek’s death. The man who placed Nigeria’s reggae on world map, has left researchers in the field of art and cultural studies with a lot to study and idealise on.
One area of the artiste’s eventful life that would attract a lot of study could be his last decade. Marred by tales of drug addiction, divorce, penury, rumours of death that turned out false and his resilient zest to keep creating good works irrespective of pains, his last decade was as much a poser as an answer to the real essence of the man – establishing his genius.
In the view of his one-time minder, Charles Novia, chief executive of November Records, which I share, Majek was a genius who unfortunately, lacked the ability to build a good support structure around himself and his art. He had no strong management and public relations around him to shield him against the hawks and vampires of the commerce and limelight of the commercial ends of the creative industry. Even his drug addictions, divorce, bankruptcy and the plethora of bad press when things turned awry for him can be traced to the yawning absence of support structure. This is a lesson to every artist.
In Majek, we lost, not a rough diamond but a refined one which our artistically blind society could not preserve. Nevertheless, he left a huge trove of wealth in raw tangible wealth (if those in his estate know). But his wealth is more in his evergreen hits and in our history which he made richer.